Monthly Archives: November 2011

The Magazine That Ended the War in Vietnam

I don’t remember when I saw this issue of Life Magazine. It came out on June 27, 1969, just less than a month before I was drafted and sent to Ft. Polk, Louisiana. I wasn’t doing much magazine reading beforehand and I didn’t see a magazine or newspaper for the 8 weeks I was in basic training.

I just remember the shock of seeing the issue, titled ‘American Dead in Vietnam: One Week’s Toll.’  Not for any personal fears – a young man drafted in 1969 understood that kind of fear already. But here was the reality of our times brought crashing home.

These were the 242 names the Pentagon released during the week of May 28 through June 3. It was not an extraordinary number. According to Life, it was an average number of dead for any seven-day period during this stage of the war.

For me, it wasn’t the shock of big numbers. Americans had been dying in Vietnam for some time.  It was the layout Life used – page after page of small mug shots, looking all the world like some cruel high school annual. Most of the images were those brave, proud photos many kids – and they were kids – had taken after they got through basic training. Class As and a campaign hat with all the brass gleaming. Some were actual high school graduation photos. A few were candid shots form home. All of them carried those tentative smiles and open gazes toward a future out there waiting for them. They just didn’t know it would come so quickly and so hard.

These were American faces – white, black, brown – who had gone into the military for duty, the draft or boredom and all the other reasons young people became soldiers in the 1960s. They were our neighbors and classmates and friends. And here they were, all 242 displayed in orderly rows, all dead during just one more week in Vietnam.

Later, much later, after my two-year Army career ended without drama, I became convinced this one magazine had helped quicken the war’s end. There had been protests and marches galore and moratoriums to end the war. They had their purposes, I suppose, the concentrate the political and philosophical against the war. The marches and protests also helped divide the nation. Old vs young.  Liberal vs conservatives. Elites vs blue collars. And the war continued.

Then came Life and its elegy for 242 young Americans. Their deaths – and their brief lives – were came with stunning harshness to homes across the country. City kids, farm kids, college graduates and pump jockeys at the local gas station. For some communities, these would be the first war dead since World War II. These weren’t slogans or little American flags for the car window. We were finally able to see the faces behind the headlines – and understand, perhaps, what toll it took on American families. We understood these were sons, husbands and loved ones who would never grow old. Their images made a lie of the reasons for the war and spoke more eloquently in their silence.

Six months after the ‘American Dead in Vietnam: A Week’s Toll’ was published, the United States began a draft lottery. In the Spring of 1970, Nixon announced a troop withdrawal of 150,000 troops. Then botched it by expanding the US war role into Cambodia. The war dragged on, after peace plans were bandied about by the US and North Vietnam. More young Americans died, the final tally of 57,158. The nation grew more divided. On January 23, 1973, Nixon announced an agreement ‘to end the war and bring peace with honor in Vietnam and Southeast Asia.’ Like so many of his political statements, it was both true and a lie.

In Life’s preface to the issue, they wrote: “It is not the intention of this article to speak for the dead. We cannot tell with any precision what they thought of the political currents which drew them across the world. Yet in a time when the numbers of Americans killed in this war – 36,000 – though far less than the Vietnamese losses,  have exceeded the dead in the Korean War, when the nation continues week after week to be numbed by a three-digit statistic which is translated to direct anguish in hundreds of homes all over the country, we must pause to look into the faces.”

Today, with two more endless wars draining our resources and leaving another generation of young Americans dead and maimed, we need to reflect again that war is not a matter of how many die but who they are. And can we spare them.

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It Never Ceases to Amaze Me

Posts I’m certain will generate lots of interest, wild acclaim and move you all to elect me King of Writing Stuff by acclamation get little response from you denizens of the Web. And the posts that are, to be kind, lacking get the applause.

You people are crazy. You know that, right?

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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The Last Day of the War

History tells us that on November 11, 1918, the guns went silent in Europe and what was optimistically called the War to End All Wars came to an end. It was not the day the killing ended.

War has its timetables and is ruthless in keeping them. Though the armistice – the actual agreement to end the fighting – was signed in a train car on a siding in France at 5:05 a.m. the morning of the 11th, the time for the cease fire was set at 11 a.m. This would give time for official word to go to the capitals of the warring nations. Celebrations broke out almost instantly in London and street lights were lit in Paris. But soldiers at the front either did not get the word or commanders lived up to their orders that the shooting would continue to the 11th hour. And it did.

 Artillery barrages commenced in the dawn hours, pounding trenches with high explosives and razor-edged shrapnel. Commanders on both sides sent out patrols and set up ambushes. The slaughter continued on schedule. On that last day of the war, all combatants suffered 10,994 casualties. Of that number, 2,738 died.

 British troops at Mons in Belgium – site of the first major battle in the war in 1914 – were among the last to die. One of those, Private George Edwin Ellison of the 5th Royal Irish Lancers, is named as the last Brit to die in the war – shot dead at 9:30 a.m. British military records show that 863 soldiers from throughout the Commonwealth died in those last hours of the war.

 The French had 75 soldiers die on that day – the last, Augustin Trebuchon of the 415 Infantry Regiment, was killed as he carried a message to the front announcing the ceasefire. He died at 10:50 a.m.

 The heaviest casualties on 11/11/1918 – more than 3,000 – fell to the Americans, Congressional inquiries in the United States a year later found that U.S. commander General George Pershing, although he knew the armistice had been signed, encouraged subordinate commanders to aggressively attack enemy lines until the last possible moment because he felt the Germans should be crushed militarily. U.S. Marines took more than 1,100 casualties alone in an attempt to cross the River Meuse in the early hours of the 11th. The 89th Division attacked and took over the town of Stenay in a pointless gesture that made it the last town captured on the Western Front. The 89th suffered 300 casualties.

 The last American to die in the war, as well as the official last man to die, was Private Henry Gunter, who was killed at 10:59 a.m. in a pointless attack on a German machine gun nest. Some reports say the German gunners tried to signal the Americans to stop the attack. It failed.

 There are imprecise records on how many casualties German forces suffered on that last day. They do have one of the saddest, however. Shortly after 11 a.m., a German lieutenant, identified only as Tomas, approached American troops to let them know they could take possession of the house where his unit had been quartered. The Americans, not aware the war had ended, shot him.

So came the end of the Great War. The world soon learned it was only a brief pause until the next one, and the ones that followed. General William Tecumseh Sherman said during the carnage of the Civil War, ‘War is cruelty; it can not be refined.’ He certainly knew what he was talking about.

Source: The Eleventh Month, Eleventh Day, Eleventh Hour by Joseph Persico

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